Quotes & Commentary #21: Dostoyevsky

Quotes & Commentary #21: Dostoyevsky

In fact, I believe the best definition of man is the ungrateful biped.

—Fyodor Dostoyevsky

As part of my job as a professional American (being an English teacher in Spain is little more than being a professional American), I had to give a presentation on thanksgiving for my class.

Thanksgiving is really the quintessential American holiday. We watch American football—our defining sport, which involves taking land by force. We watch the Macy’s Parade—which consists of giant cartoons floating above our heads, a combination of our love of pop culture and excessive size. And finally we eat, and eat and eat. And then, the next day, we shop. No series of activities could more perfectly encapsulate the American identity.

The most conspicuous absence from this list of activities is being thankful. Theoretically, at least, we all know we’re supposed to be thankful; but we have no specific ritual of thanksgiving. In my classes, I tried to get my students to say one thing they’re thankful for. Some were very forthcoming, but most were extremely shy.

Why are people shy about thanking others? Being thankful is difficult because it requires vulnerability. To thank someone sincerely is to acknowledge a debt—not just a material but an emotional debt—a debt that perhaps cannot be repaid. To seriously communicate this gratitude requires that you let down your guard, something easier said than done.

For whatever reason, most of us go through life pretending that we are self-sufficient. We don’t like to think we owe anything to anybody. Instead, like Satan in Paradise Lost, we like to pretend that we are self-generated, self-sufficient, self-caused:

“I disdained subjection, and thought one step higher / Would set me highest, and in a moment quit / The debt immense of endless gratitude, / So burdensome still paying, still to owe; / Forgetful what from him I still received.”

Ingratitude is Satan’s principal sin. He does not want to live a life of gratitude, constantly and eternally singing a hosanna to God. He doesn’t want to acknowledge that he owes anything to anybody, not even the creator of the universe.

It must be admitted that owing a debt can be humiliating and crushing. Here I am reminded of the potlatch, a ritualized form of combat practiced by the natives of the Northwest Coast of Canada. During a potlatch, the headmen from competing groups would do symbolic battle by giving each other ostentatious gifts. The loser would be the man who received more than he could reciprocate.

This sounds bizarre, but consider: have you ever received a gift from somebody you’re not very fond of? I have, and I know that receiving gifts can engender bitterness as well as gratefulness. Being the recipient of a gift puts you under the giver’s power; and few people are grateful to be under somebody else’s power.

But is this necessarily true? Is gift giving necessarily aggressive? John Milton’s Satan goes on to say “And [I] understood not that a grateful mind / By owing owes not, but still pays, at once / Indebted and discharged.”

Here Satan realizes what many people forget. Being thankful is not a sign of weakness—although often appears so to the egotistical mind—but a sign of strength. It is a sign of strength because it requires sincerity, and being sincere always involved being vulnerable, letting your guard down. Being grateful means dispensing with the illusion that you’re self-caused and self-sufficient, and revealing your weaknesses to the world. Nothing requires more strength than showing weakness.

So I’d like to take this opportunity to personally thank the universe and everyone in it. I’m luckier than I could ever put into words.

Quotes & Commentary #10: John Milton

Quotes & Commentary #10: John Milton

Who overcomes / By force, hath overcome but half his foe.

—John Milton

Like nearly all good quotes from Paradise Lost, these words are spoken by Satan. He is both commenting on his own expulsion from heaven a well as his plans to disrupt God’s plans through guile and craft rather than force. (He tried using force first, but his army lost.)

This maxim strikes me as true with regard to both physical and intellectual force. If one person is stronger than another, one army better trained and equipped than another, one nation richer and bigger than another, they might be able to have their way through force alone. And doubtless, many have used force successfully. The problem with this strategy, however, is that it is seldom possible to completely defeat an enemy’s strength. Battles are costly, and destruction takes valuable resources. Usually the fallen enemy limps away to fight another day. What’s more, when you use force, you make more enemies than you defeat. There are innumerable examples of this. Through belligerent foreign policy, the United States has often undermined its own security this way, by inspiring hatred in the hearts of many while defeating the arms of a few.

This lesson is equally true in intellectual battles. Let’s say that you and I are having a disagreement. Let’s also say that I am almost certainly wrong, and you almost certainly right. Nevertheless, if you convince me by force, against my will, if you are condescending and contradicting, even if you’re right, you will only inspire resentment and bitterness in me. I will dig in my heels; I will struggle and strain; I will look for every possible argument, however farfetched, to combat you, just because my pride will be on the line. Every intellectual fight is inevitably a fight about something besides the ostensible subject. Every argument becomes a fight of egos, not of minds, and thus a battle in the purest sense. We are never less well disposed to empathize with another person’s point of view if we feel that they are trying to do us harm.

With varying levels of success, I try to apply this lesson whenever I have a disagreement. The trick, I’ve found, is to always try to find some truth in what your partner is saying. (Call them a partner, not an opponent.) Tell them all the ways they’re right before you say any of your own ideas. Then, even if you disagree, don’t frame your comments as contradictions to what they said. Instead, treat your ideas as additions to their ideas, as different bricks in the same structure. This way, you will have an ally instead of an enemy, and they will be much more well disposed towards agreeing with you.

Quotes & Commentary #3: John Milton

Quotes & Commentary #3: John Milton

The mind is its own place, and in itself

Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.

—John Milton, Paradise Lost

How often have these words been proven true in my life? I can dislike even the most pleasant things if I set my mind to it (a rather perverse thing to boast about).

Like many people, this truth is most apparent when I am being forced to do something against my will. Even when it’s something I enjoy, if I feel that I’m being cajoled or pressured to do it, I will instantly become stubborn and bitter. I love to sing; but if you pressure me to sing, I will take a vow of silence; and if you somehow make me sing, I’ll hold a grudge against you for as long as I live.

Once we realize how much our happiness is a product of our mentality, it frees us to choose to think differently, and thus to feel differently. This is the principle behind many philosophies and religions—Stoicism, Buddhism, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. For me, learning to focus on my mindset rather than my circumstances has been enormously beneficial; sometimes it’s impossible to change the world, but you can always change your mind.

Yet there is a limit to this. Some situations are just more pleasant than others; and some conditions are dehumanizing and dreadful. Milton implies this when he puts this quote into the mouth of Satan, who was just recently banished to hell. Satan is really deluding himself that he can be just as happy in hell as in heaven. The differences between his fallen state and his former blessed life is too apparent.

Even so, I think it’s generally true that the greatest source of our happiness or unhappiness is our expectations, assumptions, interpretations, and our fears. We may not be able to make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven, but we can make both a heaven and a hell of earth.